East Coast Shoot, Day 5, continued: “a grand soft day”

June 24, 2009

Frederick Law Olmsted once wrote to architect Henry Van Brunt:

Suppose that you had been commissioned to build a really grand opera house; that after the construction work had been nearly completed and your scheme of decoration fully designed you should be instructed that the building was to be used on Sundays as a Baptist Tabernacle, and that suitable place must be made for a huge organ, a pulpit and a dipping pool.  Then, at intervals afterwards, you should be advised that parts of it could be used for a court room, a jail, a concert hall, hotel, skating rink, for surgical cliniques, for a circus, dog show, drill room, ball room, railway station and shot tower?

That is what is nearly always going on with public parks.  Pardon me if I overwhelm you; it is a matter of chronic anger with me.

It is fitting that I came across this quotation yesterday, the day we filmed an interview with Margaret Dyson, Director of Historic Parks for the city of Boston’s Parks and Recreation department, in Franklin Park.  Franklin Park, one of the largest and last parks that Olmsted designed, is now home to a golf course, a hospital, a football stadium, and a zoo.  Dyson remarked how this is one of the most common conflicts that exists, to this day, in the business of city parks.  Cities, she said, often tend to view open space as empty space, ripe for the development of more “useful” structures.

She was happy, however, about the golf course, over which we filmed her interview, because at least it kept the large meadow open, retaining the Olmstedian pastoral.  If you squint, and ignore the buzz of golf carts and the thwack of drives, it looks almost like you’re overlooking an English moor.  Especially given the weather we had, which Dyson said her Irish ancestors would have called “a grand soft day.”

Dyson spoke passionately and eloquently about Olmsted’s legacy and the parks of Boston, and insisted that our cameraman/cinematographer/southern gentleman Teague Kennedy stop calling her “ma’am.”

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